Sunday, April 29, 2018

Mahogany Tenor (IW#96)

An old friend (the friendship is old, not the friend) asked if I would make him a guitar.  He had been wanting a tenor, which is of course what I have made a lot of lately.  I was delighted to say "yes," and the talk turned to wood.  Although I have been almost exclusively using salvaged piano wood, I had a chunk of lumber left over from this table that I made a few years ago.  It is a slab of Honduran mahogany that is three inches thick and 42 inches wide, and it made a fine table and a couple of benches.

I have had the offcut sitting in the lumber rack for over ten years, wondering what I would do with it.  It seemed like this was it.  Not technically a "found object," but still scrap wood, in a way.  I used Sitka spruce for the top, which was salvaged form the mast of the 1924 schooner Adventuress.   It was not the 1924 mast, I should point out.  It was from a rebuild some time since then, but it is still beautiful straight-grained spruce.

The build was concurrent with #95, so I was building two instruments in tandem, both of them with a body lifted from drawings of a Lyon-Healy parlor guitar body from 1900 (Though Lyon-Healy does not make guitars any longer, they do still make harps, so if you have been to the orchestra lately it is likely you have heard one).  I updated the bracing, though, to a modified Martin-style X-brace pattern.  Here is a little video I made from the images that I took to document the process, with a soundtrack made on the instrument:

The real struggle on this one was with the finish.  I tried a lacquer finish twice, and both times it came out pretty poorly.  So I had to scrape it back to bare wood and start again.  After the second time it failed I decided that I would just use an oil finish.  Believe me when I say I have no stock in Tru-Oil, but I LOVE it as a finish.  It linseed oil with some other stuff in there (hardeners, maybe?  Other oils?  The MSDS is not clear on that) and it is easy to apply and makes a nice hard finish.  I really dig it.  And it just makes the wood grain sing.  Really nice stuff.

It came out well.  And since the new owner has been a Union Stagehand for his whole working life (and so has had to wear black while running shows), the head stock veneer, the heel cap, the tail graft, the bridge, and the saddle are all ebony.  Black details for a stagehand.  Seemed appropriate.  Also sprung for fancy-pants high end tuners, thinking to myself "how much better could they really be?"  The answer?  Very much better.  Wow, do Grovers make a difference.  Holy moly.  This is also my fist foray into inlaid fret dots on the fingerboard, which was fun.  I never need them, since I can't see them anyway, the side dots are so much more important to me when I am playing.  but the make it look more "guitar-y," don't they?

Here is the video for this one:

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ferris Avenue Tenor (IW#96)

At the corner of Ferris Avenue and Genesee Street in Syracuse sits a blue-shingled farm house.  Two different friends told me on the same day that there was an old piano in front of it, so of course I went over and started harvesting.  It is, without question, the strangest piano that I have yet disassembled.  Obviously very old, and obviously assembled with hand tools primarily, it bore no manufacturer's mark and very few machine-made parts.  It did not even have a harp, simply a big piece of steel plate that holds the loop end of the strings.  The pins at the other end are driven right into the wrest plank. 

As I was harvesting, the owner of the house came out and we were chatting.  That house is the original Ferris Farm house, it was the house for the farm that is now neighborhoods.  The piano had been in the basement when he bought the house, and he is only the fourth owner since the house was built in the early 1800's.  That is, it was in the Ferris family for a long long time.  He had no provenance on the piano other than it was there when they moved in.

It has all the hallmarks of being a kit that one might order and then give to the local cabinet maker so that they can build you a piano, which makes sense if you think about how relatively recently we have become able to do things like transport pianos great distances with ease.

The veneer is all a lovely walnut burl, and the wood is almost all walnut.  I don't get to work with walnut very much these days, it is not a common salvage wood.  What a treat.  It has a very particular smell when it is worked, and it is lovely to bend and to carve.  The result is a beautiful, mellow sounding instrument that is a joy to play.  I ran some maple up the center of the neck, and reinforced it with a carbon-fiber rod.

The top is from the Shaw piano that I made #91 out of.  Since that guitar is in our family and this one is going to stay in our family I positioned a hole that was in the sound board in a similar place, so that they recall each other.

It is my current go-to player, and since I put a K & K pickup in it, I have been using it to record some of my own songs recently.  Here is the video:

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Deltrula (IW#95)

My eldest son, then age 7, and I were sitting in our guestroom one morning about a year and a half ago.  This is the room where a lot of the instruments live that I don't play regularly.  There is the big old jumbo-sized six string made by Seth Hedu, an acoustic baritone guitar made by Steve Wishnevskey, and a banjo that belonged to my wife's uncle.  There is a charango that my mother in law brought back from La Paz, Bolivia after a visit and a five string mountain dulcimer made by the great W. E. "Bill" Young, who was a North Carolina maker of some distinction before he passed.  I am still looking for more information on him, so if anyone has some, send it along.  I'd like to make him a memorial here.

There are also a bunch of things I have made over the years that are of varying levels of recognizable.  The only factory made instruments in the room are the banjo and my own personal most expensive instrument, which is a round-necked Dobro that I bought when I played with the Brooklyn Jugs fifteen years ago or so.

So my eldest and I are sitting there and he says "You should make a guitar with three humps instead of two humps.  "Hm," I say.  "What would that look like?  Could you draw it for me?"  One of the things I LOVE about kids is that there is little inhibition.  "Sure,"  he says, and pads off to find a pen and paper.  He draws what he is thinking of and I say "well, that's cool looking.  What is it called?"  With all of the confidence a (then) seven-year-old can muster he says "It's a Deltrula."

So of course I have to build it.

I had to back-burner it until this past June, when I was at Haystack Mountain School of Craft leading a workshop, and it was there that I filled some spare hours beginning the work of making a Deltrula.  It is...  Weird.

Weird to say the least.

Because I was at Haystack, and because I was surrounded by brilliant humans who make stunning things, and because I like working with people on projects, I appealed to the metalsmith Jaydan Moore (who was teaching the metals class that session) for a tailpiece.  It is a piece of an old serving tray and is just about right for this crazy thing.

Because he was born on the 13th, it has 13 strings and 13 frets.  I played with the drawing a little because I wanted it to have a ridiculously short neck to deal with all of those strings.  It is strung in four courses of three strings each, with one extra bass string.  That extra string is tuned to A, with the four courses tuned to DGBE, which is how I keep my tenor guitar tuned.  Pretty weird to play.

The whole thing is chestnut out of a Shoninger Piano that was built in 1913 I think.  So a combo of wormy and not, with a piece of the original mahogany veneer on the completely silly and massive head stock.  It is pretty loud, and my eldest says it sounds "like a robot," which seems about right.  Not sure it will come out on this video, but it sure is a weird thing.  Sort of like my eldest.

 Here is how it sounds.   It is, truth to tell, pretty hard to play.  But it sounds pretty good.  I could see it being a back-up instrument on something.  And it will certainly get hauled out to any workshop on experimentation. As far as I know, I am one of three Deltrulists in the nation.  Which means that I am one of the three best in these United States.  Here is a little video, as per usual:

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sister Shelf Tenors (IW#'s 93 & 94)

A friend who is a great dancer contacted me a while ago with this story:

"Hi Zeke, i have a potential commission for you.. I have moved back to Toronto and in the move the packers took apart and ruined my grandfather's lawyer's bookcase. I am hoping to get it repaired by the insurance, but my daughter had a lovely suggestion if not. We were wondering if you might be able to make us a cello out of the wood of the bookcase."

Of course I replied that I did not think I could do that, it seeming like too much of an attempt to try something I had never done before with material so precious.  We did end up making two guitars, however, one for each of the two sisters.

The shelves were made out of stained poplar and some other wood that I think was ash, but that had a grain pattern unlike any ash that I had seen before.  These are not the first guitars I have made out of poplar, it's quite a nice tone wood actually.  Very mellow.  I used the ash for the necks, and I did put a Gibson-style truss rod into the necks. One of them ended up with a really gorgeous wavy grain in the neck, which you can see in the photos of the backs.  Of course the green of the poplar will mellow to a honey color over time.  Right now it is pretty dramatically green, as poplar is.

The tops I made out of the Sitka spruce ship's mast that I made Seafaring Ukes out of.  It is also the top of the oak parlor guitar that I made a little while ago.  It has ruler straight grain that is super tight and it sounds awesome.  I am actually running out of that material, which is starting to make me nervous.  I'll have to source some more.

These are both from the 1900 Lyon-Healy parlor guitar pattern that I have used for a couple of other instruments.  I really like the small size of the box, and they are pretty punchy.  I have a couple more on the bench that will be this same size.  

These guitars sound great, and I had the opportunity to have two of the best guitar players I know play them together.  Here are Leo Crandall and Tom Fay testing them out:

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Piano Workshops (2 of 2): Haystack

I first came to Haystack Mountain Shcool of Craft as a teaching assistant for my teacher, studio-mate, and friend Eck Follen.  I should write about her one of these days, but this is not that story.  Suffice it to say that it opened me to the power of this craft school on Deer Isle in Maine, and to the landscape that it sits in, and to a particular way of treating making.  This is one of the craft schools of which Arrowmont is a peer, and Penland School of Crafts and Peter's Valley School of Craft and a few others.  These are rarified environments in which students are immersed in studio time and make in a thoughtful, concerted way surrounded by about a hundred other people that are all doing the same thing at the same time.

It is a safe environment for exploration, a real place for making for the sake of making, and a supportive place for failing forward in all the best ways.

I have taught at Haystack a few times during smaller, three-day sessions, and this summer was honored to be asked to come and lead a two-week workshop in which we disassembled two pianos and built experimental musical instruments out of them, much like at Arrowmont in summer of 2016.

This time the students were younger, and much less unfettered by "musical norms" than one might have expected.  So they made some really weird, very interesting instruments.  An interesting thing about using piano parts is that most students so far have gravitated toward stringed instruments.  This makes sense, but this time one student made a couple of shakers, which was a nice departure.  Here is what they came up with:

A bass/guitar zither.  The Bass stings are on the right of the instrument, at the top of this photo.

This is how you play the bass/guitar zither.
A noise maker walking cane.

When you put the bottom of the cane on the ground, the bridge strikes the strings and makes noise.

This was an attempt at a pedal-operated keyboard.  It did not get finished, but it was a very interesting attempt.

This students made a whole series of objects.  First up:  A shaker filled with rocks from the beach.

The back of the shaker.

This is the companion piece to the shaker. It is a carved ukulele.

While waiting for glue to dry

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Oak Parlor Guitar (IW#92)

Good friends of mine have a little early 20th century parlor guitar made out of oak.  It's a nice little number, and has that very deep "V" shaped neck you see on older instruments sometimes.  I had not seen a guitar made out of oak before, and I was intrigued.  Turns out is was a pretty common guitar tone wood for some time, I can only surmise that is because oak bends so easily, but also makes a nice strong neck.

The 1900 Shaw piano I took apart and wrote about here had some oak parts, so when a good friend asked if I would make him a little guitar that would be a good camping and traveling guitar, this seemed like the right fit.

The back and sides are American red oak, the top is Sitka spruce, from the same ship's mast that the tops of these are from.  The finger board is from a dogwood tree that was felled on the land that I grew up on, because dogwood is super hard and because my friend is from Virginia, which (like North Carolina) has dogwood as the state tree.

It is really throaty sounding, notwithstanding the small body, and is really easy to play.  One of the things I learned on this one is that I am NOT a good finisher, so I have a lot to learn in that department, but this is a really fun guitar that sounds better than any I have made so far.

Here is what it sounds like:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Piano Workshops (1 of 2): Arrowmont

As is true with a lot of my recent posts, there is so much more that I want to say than there is time to say it.  So this is going to be too brief, but I'll hit the high points.

There are a number of craft schools around the country that are committed to maintaining and spreading craft traditions, as well as moving craft practice forward into the 20th century.  By "craft" I mean medium specific crafts like ceramics, blacksmithing, wood working, wood turning, fibers, jewelry making.  Interesting to think about craft in the 21st century, and I do keep wondering when coding will be added to the list at schools like these.

At any rate, there are two craft schools that are prominent in my life:  Arrowmont School of Art and Craft in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Deer Isle, Maine.  I'll write in the next post about Haystack, this post is about Arrowmont.

I started going to Arrowmont in 1999 or 2000, I think.  I know my first workshop was with a sculptor named Jack Slentz.  It was my first introduction to the idea that art and craft could really be a viable path for anyone, and it was, to put it mildly, a seminal moment in my life.  Over the next few years, my wife and I (through the auspices of my mother) met my sister and mother at Arrowmont every summer for a week of making and art and music in a way that deeply affected my life.  It is not hyperbole to say that going to Arrowmont was the catalyst that made me decide to quit theater, apply to and attend RISD, and become a furniture designer and maker.

Because of this, I was honored and humbled to be asked to come lead a workshop at Arrowmont last summer (2016).  It was in many ways a sign that I am doing what I "should be doing," whatever that means.  What a joy it was.

Seven students, a TA (my old friend and inveterate weirdo Kevin Cwalina) and me.  Two pianos, six days.  It was a whirlwind, and it was hard for a lot of reasons.  Hard but good.  And several people walked away with something that made sound, though they were all pretty strange.

Integral to the experience, I think, was the dismantling of the pianos.  They are such wonder-full objects, in the sense that they are full of wonder, as am I every time I dismantle one.  I think I am at eleven pianos now, though I may be missing one.  What incredible machines.  I am so glad we can give them new life.  And the great thing about working with other people is that they think totally differently about them than I do.

I have tended to make guitar-y instruments, but they (as you will see) were much less confinced to that.  Here are some images:

Beginning the dismantling.
A good group of weirdos.

This did not get finished during the workshop, but it was big and strange, that's for sure.
A tenor guitar.  I really liked the way this student used the music rack as ornament.  I always just throw that thing away.

This was like a mini-koto.  It sounded great.

An almost-finished tenor guitar.

A really lovely bluetooth speaker gramophone.  It sounds pretty amazing when you play music through it.